Review: 'American Animals' brings real life to crime genre

Stunning debut feature from writer-director Bart Layton takes the myth of the crime movie and blows it to smithereens

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Heist movies make robberies look like good ol' fashioned fun. "American Animals" is here to put a fire extinguisher to that flame. 

Jared Abrahamson, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner and Barry Keoghan star in "American Animals."

The thrilling narrative debut from documentarian Bart Layton takes the myth of "Heat," the "Ocean's" movies or any other film that centers on a robbery and puts a racing pulse behind it. It's a striking commentary on boredom, masculinity and detachment from real life in a society where males crave excitement and experience and pour themselves into fantasy. Layton is able to layer his film with elements of reality that help him deliver his point like a taser to the neck. 

Spencer (Barry Keoghan, a breakthrough in last year's "The Killing of a Sacred Deer") is a student at Kentucky's Transylvania University who gets an idea to steal a book of priceless art from the private collection of his school's library. He enlists the help of his friend, Warren (Evan Peters, "American Horror Story"), and they plot the score, eventually looping in their pals Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson).

Everything is set -- Layton stages a fantasy sequence where the cool-as-a-cucumber criminals are as suave as the "Ocean's" gang -- and everything goes wrong. Layton deals with the fear, guilt, paranoia and dread of the scheme's aftermath and lets the audience feel the consequences of his characters' actions.

"American Animals" is based on a true story, and Layton mixes in testimonials from the real life characters while also inserting them into the film, alongside the actors playing them, lingering like ghosts of their decisions. The effect is dizzying. "American Animals" is one of the year's smartest, most captivating films, and Layton stages it with the precision of a perfect crime.

(313) 222-2284

'American Animals'


Rated R: for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material

Running time: 117 minutes